By Rob Tucker
PANAMA - The road into Panama - Main Street as it's known to locals, Route 474 to everyone else - was repaved recently, and it's freshly laid asphalt and bright yellow center lines provide visitors with a smooth and enjoyable ride into town.
Photo by Rob Tucker
Panama quarterback Bryce Payne completed 6-of-9 passes for 116 yards and a touchdown in a Class DD win over Clymer on Saturday.
One such group took that ride - on an overcast Saturday - was the Clymer Pirates, runnersup a season ago for the Section 6 Class DD title, and while their entry and exit was certainly a pleasant experience, it was their time spent between the hashmarks with the Panama Panthers that didn't go quite so smoothly.
Sprung by a pair of first-half special teams miscues and a 35-yard punt return by Dillon Mescall midway through the second period, Panama held rival Clymer scoreless for four quarters and took its season-opening Class DD contest, 21-0.
"Nice start. Nice start," Panama coach Chris Payne said. "What's the most important game of the season? The first one."
If this is a sign of things to come, Payne is likely feeling pretty good about his squad right now.
After punting on each of its first three possessions of the first half, it was the Panama defensive unit, which seemed to get stronger as the game went on, and the special teams group that finally got the Panthers rolling.
A muffed punt return started Clymer on its own 10 early in the second quarter, and following a trio of runs that gained minus-1, 1 and 0 yards, respectively, the Pirates lined up to punt the ball away.
Back to return the boot was Mescall, who was essentially left alone as Payne opted to try for the punt block. Unperturbed, however, Mescall received the kick, picked his way by the first couple of tacklers and then sprinted down the right sideline - all the way to Clymer's original line of scrimmage at the 10.
"I'm looking at special teams, conditioning and some of those other little things," Clymer coach Dave Bodamer said of the issues behind the loss. "If you can't do the little things, you can't do the big things. So we've just got to worry about ourselves and we've got to get better because (the schedule) isn't getting any easier."
Obviously energized by the return, the Panama offense found paydirt only two plays later when running back Stephen Enlow barreled his way up the middle and dove into the end zone to break the scoreless tie with 6:27 to go in the second quarter.
"That punt return by Dillon Mescall really set the tone for us," Chris Payne said. "(Clymer) had possession and we'd had just (a few) plays in the first half. And that was punt block, (so Dillon) had no one blocking for him, but he just went.
It was a big turning point."
Clymer again went three-and-out on its ensuing possession. And after another miscue by the kicking unit - a high snap sent punter Jake Wiggers scrambling nearly 30 yards behind the line of scrimmage, though he did manage, miraculously, to avoid the pressure and get a kick off - Panama, at their own 37, got back to work.
This time it was quarterback Bryce Payne's time to shine, as the 6-foot senior first hit teammate David O'Dell, who despite being promptly upended held onto the ball for a 23-yard gain.
A few plays later Payne fired a 22-yard strike to Ricky Eddy, and finally, on third-and-goal from the Clymer 19 (just prior to the play Payne had been sacked for a 10-yard loss), Payne tossed a back-shoulder touchdown pass to Eric Shutt to give the hosts a 14-0 advantage at the break.
By game's end, Bryce Payne had completed 6-of-9 passes for 116 yards with a touchdown and an interception. Shutt, meanwhile, had two receptions for 45 yards and Eddy hauled in two passes for 40 yards.
"We did some nice things up front," Chris Payne said. "(Bryce) sees the field well, he's quick and he's a smart kid."
Armed with a 14-point lead with two quarters to play, the Panama defense - led by Mescall's four sacks and 13 tackles and Enlow's nine tackles and two sacks - took over the rest of the way.
The best example of Panama's defensive strength came in the third quarter with Clymer driving, as the Panthers picked off two passes in a one-minute span.
Late in the third Shutt intercepted quarterback Matt DeStevens' throw. And when Bryce Payne was intercepted by Mitch Einink two plays later, the Panthers' defense simply came up with another interception two plays after that when David O'Dell jumped the Clymer receiver's route at the 15.
"The defense was solid," Chris Payne said. "We did some nice things in pass coverage and that interception by David was gigantic."
Enlow capped the victory, and O'Dell's interception, by sprinting 9 yards up the middle two plays later to push Panama to the winning margin.